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Friday, April 10, 2009

Easter Weekend musings

Two Oceans, two extra-ordinary marathons, two tournaments to go

If it's Easter weekend, then it must be the Two Oceans Marathon. For those not in the know, the Two Oceans Marathon is one of South Africa's biggest running events, a 56 km ultra-marathon and a half-marathon around the Cape Peninsula. You can read my post about the race from last year here, including a profile of the course, and some comments. I won't do the same this year, other than to say we're in for a beautiful autumn day, perhaps a little warm for super-fast times, but a good day out for most.

The race has been dominated by Zimbabweans for the last few years, defending champion Marcus Mambo going for a fourth win. The Zimbabwean runners flood south over the border to claim what is, in their terms, enormous prize money (R150,000 for the winner, or about $15,000), and have had the better of the locals for a long time. Added to this is the fact that they don't race as much as our athletes do, and the combination of incentive and preparation is usually enough to relegate local runners to the minor placings.

Compared to international marathons, Oceans is a "minor" race, however, with regards to prize money. Consider that the big marathons offer six figures (dollar amounts) appearance fees plus prize money and you see what we're up against. For SA, the problem is exchange rates as well - a weak currency compared to the dollar, pound and euro. Many people have in the past said that the Kenyans will one day come down here and dominate as well, but given that a second level Kenyan can make twice as much money winning a B-level marathon in Europe, that's unlikely.

I'll be commentating this year's race for the local television broadcast, which should be fun. I am on-board as a 'technical' analyst, so I'll be brought in to discuss, among other things, performance limits, causes of fatigue, hydration and fuel strategies, and other physiology issues that might (hopefully) add a bit of value for the viewers. I'm looking forward to it, we'll have to see how it goes.

The marathon world looks back to days of old

Meanwhile, while South Africans are basking the glory of "fast" 2:18 marathon times (seriously, the media are reporting that the top local MALE runners are in great shape because they ran 2:18 marathons recently), the rest of world is now racing competitively at sub-2:05 pace!

Last weekend, in a momentous day for marathon running, 13 Kenyan men broke 2:09 on a single day (only 6 Americans have ever done it, according to LetsRun.com). The Paris Marathon saw 11 sub-2:09 clockings, a record for a single race, with a winning time of 2:05:47. The Rotterdam Marathon, while not as deep, was even more spectacular, with two men running 2:04:27.

That's right, a sprint for the line, and a victory margin of less than a second in a marathon run in 2:04:27. Duncan Kibet and James Kwambai were 1 and 2, and they ran the third and fourth fastest marathons in history that day.

It was, for marathon running, a definitive statement that a new era has arrived. A lot of people, including a coach on the LetsRun.com boards, are proclaiming that this was a weekend that changed the marathon world, the start of a new era. A revolution, certainly, but it is a change that started a long time ago. And so it is not so much that we are seeing a new era, it's just that the era which began three or four years ago is now so obvious that it's starting to punch us between the eyes.

Looking back, Rotterdam and Paris were spectacular, but predictable. It's easy to look back in hindsight, but the ripple effect of what happened on the track in the 1990s, driven by Gebrselassie, was bound to reach the marathon (once again, it was Geb who has played a key role). It is actually not dissimilar to what happened in the 5,000m event in the mid-1990s. In 1994, the world record stood at 12:58 (Said Aouita). That year, Gebrselassie broke his record for the first time, taking it down to 12:56. Moses Kiptanui "borrowed" it in early 1995, before Gebrselassie produced what might be one of the greatest runs of all time, to take almost 11 seconds off the record when he ran 12:44.39 in Zurich.

What happened next is that the rest of the world was "pulled" into faster times. Where before 1995, it was remarkable to break 13 minutes, it suddenly became commonplace. Sub 12:50 was the new standard, and by 1997, Gebrselassie's "untouchable" world record had fallen to Daniel Komen, and easily half a dozen men were running 12:50 times each year.

The same has now happened in the marathon. One year ago, only one man had ever run under 2:05. Last weekend, four men did it on one day (once again, credit to LetsRun for the stat). Yet the signs were there. Elite half marathons that are NOT won in sub-60 minutes are now deemed "SLOW", because so many men are running 59-something for that distance. Gebrselassie, Tergat and other men with 59-credentials are translating that speed (and their obvious track speed) into 2:04 marathons, and the rest of the world is following suit. To me, the key moment came in 2003, when Paul Tergat and Sammy Korir raced to a world record of 2:04:55 in Berlin. That was the start of the current era, in my opinion, and Kibet and Kwambai are the next step in the evolution of the race, the steps now being taken more and more frequently.

Added to this, the huge money on offer provides an enormous incentive (as for the Zimbabweans in Two Oceans, though it's all relative), and the rest, as they say, is history and a race for 2:04:27 "photo finish" in the marathon.

Best of all, there are still two big marathons to go. First is Boston, which probably won't produce those kinds of times thanks to the tougher course, but should give us a great race between American favourite Ryan Hall (who is apparently in awesome training shape) and defending champion Robert Cheruiyot, who won last year's race in brutal, dominant fashion.

Then the week after is the big one - London. Last year, London produced six sub-2:07 clockings, which is a record that was matched in Paris last weekend. This year's London race promises to be even better - Lel vs Wanjiru vs Goumri vs Gharib vs Tadese. There are world champions, Olympic Champions, World Series Champions, debutants with magnificent half-marathon credentials. It promises to be an extra-ordinary race.

Closer to the time, for both Boston and London, we'll recap our analysis from last year and look forward. And then obviously, on race day, I'll be doing my "real time" splits and race commentary, as has become custom here at The Science of Sport.

Sevens rugby: Two to go, as we near the end of the season

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the Sevens Tournament in Adelaide, seeing as how I've been updating you on the tournaments in Dubai and Hong Kong.

We won Adelaide (huge celebrations), and are now within striking distance of claiming the overall World Series title. That was of course the big goal for the year and so we approach that with the chance to wrap it up in London at the end of May (followed by Edinburgh a week later).

The Adelaide tournament was really just a war of attrition. It was the 5th tournament in 9 weeks, and came only a week after a tough Hong Kong tournament. Players were battered, bruised and fatigued, and it was always going to be a survival of the fittest contest.

In the end, I have little doubt that we won because of superior fitness, for which the coaching staff and fitness and conditioning staff (Allan Temple-Jones, to be specific) must take a bow. We had injuries, as did the other teams, but our intensity remained closer to normal than anyone else's throughout both Hong Kong and Adelaide, and that made a difference, along with the other changes made after the Dubai trip.

So a successful trip, with one to go, which I'll hopefully report good news on in due course!

Enjoy Easter, have a wonderful break, and join us for more next week!



Anonymous said...

Dear Ross,

Is there any way for those of us outside of SA to see the coverage of the Two Oceans? I don't suppose the local TV station covering the race has an online stream on offer?

Thanks for the great site.


Anonymous said...

Hi guys,

As a fan of cycling, which repeatedly gets hammered by doping charges and--to be fair--positive tests, I wonder why there are so few positive doping tests in the world of distance running. Is the sport that clean? Are there fewer tests than in cycling? Are the stakes, and therefore incentive, lower? I know it's only speculation, but I'd like to hear your thoughts.

John, USA

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Scott

Not as far as I know. Crazy, but true. I don't know enough about the technical requirements of converting a TV broadcast to online, but one would have thought the benefit of doing it would far outweigh the costs, particularly to take the race global. Unfortunately, we haven't quite cottoned onto the concept of online video yet, perhaps as a result of what is still a very poor download capacity in SA (thanks to our inept government's policies on telecommunications - too many bribes, not enough performance).

It's something that seems so obvious though, and I will actually mention it to the race director and the marketing manager when I see them next. So hopefully in the future. Even if it's just a 20 minute highlights package that gets put together and put on the race website. We'll see - let's hope that by next year, it's up.

Otherwise, plan your Easter vacation better and come over to run it!


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi John

Good question. I must confess I'm not entirely sure. We certainly have seen a number of positive tests in the sprint distances and the throwing events (hammer throw in particular), which are just about as tainted as cycling is. One would imagine that the long distance guys are subjected to the same testing processes as the sprinters, so that logic would suggest the problem is not as great.

However, I don't even believe that myself, I'm sure there is a bigger problem than is being revealed. I DON'T think that the problem is quite as large as it is in cycling, and there are a number of reasons for that. Cycling was the first "doped" sport, way back in 1903, when guys used wine and strychnine to dull pain. That led to what became a culture of doping in the sport, carried on in the 60s by Anquetil (a confessed doper) and Simpson and co.

In long distance running, the doping "era" is rumoured to have been in the 60s and 70s, when the FInns were supposed to have been blood doping. Of course, that's difficult to detect even now, so it was impossible back then. But many have suggested that they were doping quite heavily during the period that they dominated the sport.

Moving ahead, we're now looking at the East Africans. I know a little bit about them, because my university is involved in a collaboration with a University in Kenya where all the research on these guys is being done. And I have quite a high degree of certainty that the Kenyans, when in Kenya, are NOT doping.

That is partly because they don't have facilities to dope (they don't even have electricity in their training camps), and because they don't believe in the use of anything "foreign". It's quite a big thing for them, the idea of supplements or even Western diets. They stick with what they know and don't go anywhere near the doping products. And they live such rudimentary lifestyles that doping seems too sophisticated. I know I may be accused of naivety there, but the story I always think of is that Martin Lel, the world's best marathon runner, got MALARIA about 4 months before the Olympics last year.

Now, Lel would have made close to a million dollars PER YEAR in 2006 and 2007. A multi-millionaire, yet he gets a disease that has all but been eradicated and treated everywhere else. That simply doesn't happen, unless you are really choosing a life of isolation and no medicine at all. It doesn't seem compatible with the idea of doping - use EPO or blood doping to boost performance, but don't take anything for malaria and get worse by 50%...?

That said, once they leave Kenya for races and overseas competition, then I don't know what is happening. There have been rumours - Daniel Komen, who holds the 3,000m world record, was heavily suspected of using EPO. Never proven though, because that was the era when it was undetectable.

So honestly, I don't know. I believe that many (most, probably) are clean, simply because they come out of Africa as juniors with such extra-ordinary ability. Long before the doctors and agents have managed to worm their way in (and possibly provide drugs), these guys are 18, 19 years old and running 27 minutes for 10km. I know of many of them who leave their country for the first time, race on a tartan synthetic track for the first time, and run a 27:15 10km time. It's not inconceivable to me that with 3 years of training and good management, they could run 26:30.

So I'd like to believe that they are clean, just as I'd like to believe that cycling is. Cycling's problem is its governance, which really doesn't want to dig any deeper. The only reason we know so much of cycling's problems is because external agencies like WADA (and now the French labs) have pursued it so aggressively. But the UCI has kicked and screamed its way through everything from the start, with Pat McQuaide denying it ever had a problem. Until, that is, the sponsors started pulling out and the media refused to cover racing, choosing doping instead.

So under that same microscope, maybe running would look as exposed, who knows? I have more faith in running though, just because I know some of the athletes and they have performed clean. As with most things, however, I suspect it's a mixture of those who are, and those who are not.

Just a final word on the incentives, I think that the competition in running is probably more "local", in that the races are really run between Kenyans, Ethiopians, Ugandans, Eritreans, and maybe the odd Spaniard or American, thrown in for variety. Cycling competition is much more "dispersed" and maybe that wider playing field, combined with the level of sophistication in the sport, means more scope for doping. I don't know. That's pretty speculative.

THanks for the question!

Mircea said...

It all comes back to doping... John has a good question indeed.

Yes, cycling is the most scrutinized sport due to it's past(?) culture of doping.

It is a fact that Kenya, and any backwater country for that matter can be an attractive place for dopers due to uncommon out of competition tests. Malaria argument does not hold. You get bitten by the wrong mosquito, you fall ill. It is not easy to dodge maalaria no matter how "prepared" you are.

The East-Africans might have that "rudimentary" image but wouldn't the cunning ones use that to their advantage? Running is for money and if doping is +EV quite a few and their agent(especially) would recognize that and act accordingly. And since the competition is quite significant there is a lot of incentive to improve. Locality is a non-issue: the level of the adversaries is the key. The stronger they are the less glory there is for you.

You know, it's fine to defend the Kenyans, I half agree with that but let's move north of the border... or maybe not.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Mircea

I don't agree about the malaria thing - it's a disease that is preventable, or at least controllable. But short of discussing the virulity and efficacy of malaria meds, the point I was making is that an attitude towards doping is not conducive with the other approaches I know are adopted by these athletes.

So my point of view is not an outsider's opinion - I know the athletes, I know the coaches, and I know the academics and scientists, and I believe (I can be accused of being misled, I suppose) that they are not doping.

You make an interesting point about north of the border, but I don't know anything about that personally, so I won't comment. My comments are made based on what I know, not speculation.

But the point about the agents is valid, as is the one about the use of "cunning" to evade doping. But not while in Kenya, unless everyone I know is lying too.


Bob, NY said...

hey guys, good intersting thoughts as always.

Any idea why the Kenyans/Ethiopians haven't had a presence at Comrades and Two Oceans..or pretty much any other Ultra race around the world.

I'm sure they would clean up the awards, so is it simply that it doesn't pay as much?

With more and more Africans now getting visas to run abroad, do you see a shift from the traditional European/American winners of these races to East Africans?

Happy Easter!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Bob

Yeah, interesting one that. I don't think the better East Africans will come down for races like Two Oceans unless the prize money was increased substantially.

I actually wrote in this post that the better Kenyans wouldn't run Oceans, and then lo and behold, a Kenyan won the race on Saturday!

But I stand by what I said - the guy who won Oceans was really a C-grade Kenyan. His marathon best is 2:11, and while that's good, it's still way, way off what his countrymen are doing. To me, an "A-grade" Kenyan is running 2:07 or faster, a "B-level" guy runs 2:08 to 2:10, and then there are the also-rans.

That sounds disrespectful to them, it's not meant to be, it's just that if one is discussing elite performers, you have these standards. So now, you have to ask whether the faster Kenyans are running these ultras. And the answer is no, because it doesn't make sense for them. Two Oceans pays R150,000 for the win, but because it's 56km long, it also forces the athlete to MISS other racing opportunities for perhaps 4 months (2 before and 2 after). The training commitment is so large, for what is a relatively small payoff.

So, if I am a 2:10 marathon runner, I would rather run three small half-marathons in Europe (in 61 or 62 min) and claim say 2,000 Euros prize money each time (total of R60,000), and maybe two marathons a year, where I get appearance money of say 5,000 Euro plus some prize money of another 5,000 Euros each time. That gives a total of about 26,000 Euros a year, a better payoff than winning Oceans.

So no, I don't think we'll see better Kenyans coming down. We might see the lower level guys come down, but they're "journeymen".

I think the Zimbabweans will continue to dominate Two Oceans, and the Russians will dominate the Comrades Marathon.


Anonymous said...

Hi guys,
Great website and always a very interesting read. One of your earlier posts discussed the level of improvement obtained from doping, I think in context of Lance Armstrong. Could it be possible that he wasn't doping given that those he defeated year on year have subsequently been proven to be.
Extending the same argument to athletics, do you feel that if some of the elite athletes are doping, it's likely that all athletes are, just because of the benefit doping gives, specifically blood doping/EPO. Or is natural talent and training enough to mean some wouldn't need to dope and could still compete?